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Disinformation:The War of Words

According to the State Department’s website, disinformation includes urban legends, conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation. For example, an urban legend debunked by the website claimed that Americans and Europeans were kidnapping children from Latin America and elsewhere, and murdering them to use their body parts for organ transplants. Other conspiracy theories cited and refuted by the State

Banner with picture of slain Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri

Department include claims that the United States was involved in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February, and had foreknowledge of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.

This type of conspiratorial thinking is neither new nor specific to any particular region of the world. Many analysts attribute it to factors ranging from human nature to regional politics. Ehsan Ahrari, an expert on information warfare, says disinformation is due in part to the clout the United States has as a major player on the world stage says,"Our interests in different regions of the world are part of our larger global interest. So the regional actors have a predilection to look at the issue from their regional perspective. And to them, regional perspectives are very important. For us, regional perspectives are part of our global perspective. That is part of our problem.”

Other analysts say cultural misunderstandings bolster conspiracy theories, while acknowledging that foreign policy differences between the U-S and other countries play a role in shaping people’s perceptions.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker, who served on the Clinton administration, says misconceptions also play a role. He adds, “It’s not altogether just the foreign policy. For example, we have a democracy program. What we think we’re doing is trying to help countries to establish a strong, stable base for economic development. And what a lot of people think we’re doing is trying to establish hegemonic rule over [them], [that] we’re trying to change people to fit our mold and our model.”

Ambassador Walker, who is currently President the Middle East Institute in Washington, adds that disinformation is often based on false assumptions and miscommunication between cultures.

In the war on terrorism, some analysts suggest that these misconceptions are helping to drive anti-American sentiment abroad, especially among factions that hate the United States to begin with. But this kind of thinking, argues analyst Ehsan Ahrari, is widespread and pervades democratic societies as well as developing ones. He adds, “conspiracy theories are part of human existence. If we think that a democratic society is going to do away with conspiracy theories … no, it’s not going to happen.”

Other analysts say that people tend to be more skeptical when extraordinary events take place. A case in point would be the conspiracy theories in the United States surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the attacks on September 11th.

University of Southern California communications professor Nancy Snow says people are generally fascinated by larger- than- life events that they cannot explain. She says, “it gives some people a sense of empowerment, a sense of power and also control, if they think that they know something that others don’t know. The whole nature of conspiracy literally goes back to ‘breathing together’, co-inspire means to breathe together.”

But some of the people named by the State Department as sources of disinformation argue that their stories are supported by well- documented facts. Among them is investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, who is cited as the source for the story on Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination. He says, “I would put my sources up against the U.S. government any day of the week and feel very confident that what I am being told is absolutely truthful.”

On its website, the State Department denies any U-S role in the murder, citing an executive order dating back to 1976 that prohibits assassination by anyone acting on behalf of the United States government.

To counter disinformation, many analysts suggest that a review of U.S. foreign policy may be necessary. Some propose a more aggressive public policy to counter ideological warfare. Others, including former Ambassador Edward Walker, say the State Department website is a good start. He goes on to say,“this is not the kind of thing you can solve with one vehicle. You have to have a complex of messages going out there. Some from the government, some coming in public statements by our leaders, some coming by other people in this country who have credibility, and then using the support of respected people outside the United States.”

Some analysts believe that building better relations with other countries may help overcome suspicions and separate fact from fiction. But ultimately, many concede that conspiracies and legends are part of the human psyche, and will always exist.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.